Brooklyn Nets: D’Angelo Russell in Most Improved Player conversation

Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

D’Angelo Russell has been a star for the Brooklyn Nets all season. But has his play been enough to put him in the Most Improved Player race?

The blossoming of D’Angelo Russell into an All-Star this season has truly been a sight to behold. Although the focus this season has been the Brooklyn Nets and their playoff push, a side story that has recently started gaining traction has been Russell and the Most Improved Player award.

Although it’s pretty much been a one-player race all year, Russell’s play has him closing the gap fast as teams hit the home stretch of the season.

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To begin the argument for Russell it’s key to look at who stands in front of him at the moment for the award. Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors has been the front runner for the MIP award pretty much since the season began.

The 6-foot-9 forward out of New Mexico State is in his third year in the league. He has gone from a bench guy to an important role player and starter on a championship-contending Raptors team. What’s made him stand out so much this season is his steep scoring increase from the year prior.

Last season Siakam averaged just over seven points and four rebounds in a little less than 20 minutes per game. This season, however, Siakam has truly hit his stride.

He has statistical increases across the board. He up to 32 minutes, 16.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and just less than 3 assists per game. He is also shooting 55 percent from the field as well as 37 percent from 3.

Pascal is now the prototypical stretch 4 with his size and ability to space the floor with his shooting.

Now on its surface, Siakam would be the clear cut answer for the award. He has arguably the biggest stat increase of any player in the league and has increased his role on the team.

That being said, what D’Angelo Russell has done this season is an improvement that goes well past statistical categories. At this point in time, Russell is the best player on his team, but it wasn’t always like that.

Early this season, Caris LeVert appeared to be the team’s best player before his foot injury sidelined him for half the season. At their lowest point, the Nets were 10 games under .500. After that, the team hitched their wagon to Russell and went as he went.

He became more consistent in his play and decision making. No longer would Russell have a great game and then go silent for the next two.

Currently, Russell is up in many categories from last year. He’s up five points in scoring from 15.5 to 20.5 points per game. He’s also seen an increase in his assist totals and a decrease in turnovers. The type of growth you love to see in a guard.

Russell has also increased his field goal, 3-point, and free throw percentages. Russell currently ranks eighth in total 3-pointers made, is ninth in total assists and is second  in assist percentage at 40.1. These are all drastic increases from where he ranked last season.

Russell’s best stretch on the season came during January and February. In February alone Russell averaged 26 points and eight assists per game. He’s scored 40 points twice and has become the team’s closer in late-game situations.

That’s not to mention Russell made his first All-Star Game as the replacement for the injured Victor Oladipo who, coincidentally, was the MIP winner last season.

Going beyond the statistics, a major category that Russell has improved on is his leadership ability. His leadership on the court has improved from the beginning of the season as you see him direct the offense, shout out calls on defense and helping his teammates off the floor.

Off the court, Russell is always engaged on the bench and could possibly be the second-best dancer on the Nets bench mob behind Theo Pinson.

This MIP race is actually very similar to the one from last season between Oladipo and Spencer Dinwiddie. Although Oladipo did have a statistical increase, one of the biggest reasons he won was because he went from an above-average player to a franchise player.

Dinwiddie had a strong case though last season. He went from being a former G-Leaguer to one of the focal points of the Nets team.

What it came down to was a player transitioning to being his team’s star versus a player that had a breakout season statistically. So is the case with this year’s race. With all due respect to Siakam, he went from being a role player to the team’s third- or fourth-best option.

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Russell went from being a player who, to this point hadn’t played up to expectations to a player the Brooklyn franchise could build around. Russell has not only vastly improved his play, but also improved the state of the Brooklyn franchise.